Opportunities for mediation in the tertiary education sector

14 March 2022

Anthony Stacey

Anthony Stacey is an Associate Professor at the Wits Business School, Chair of the WBS Ethics and Plagiarism Committees, past President of the Academic Staff Association of Wits University (ASAWU) and has recently been accredited as a Conflict Dynamics mediator.

In some respects, the tertiary education sector is little different from other sectors in the economy. There are a variety of stakeholders with seemingly competing interests and limited resources. Disputes between line managers and their employees, organised labour and management, and various modes of workplace bullying and discrimination, are not unique to the sector. However, the particular diversity of stakeholders (the student body, the Student Representative Council, academic staff, staff in complementary and administrative roles, staff associations and unions, line managers, executives and external stakeholders such as government, employers and communities) and structural elements of the tertiary education sector present unique challenges and disputes.

These are opportunities for mediated outcomes.

'Client' vs 'Student'

By way of an example, consider the relationship between the postgraduate student and their research supervisor. A healthy, supportive and mutually beneficial relationship between student and supervisor is ideal. However, unmet expectations and aspirations can develop into a dispute as there is a lot at stake, particularly for the student. There is a model of academia that frames students as clients, who are therefore entitled to exemplary service from supervisors, lecturers and administrators. Certainly, students deserve a quality and professional experience, but the “client” model disregards the obligation on students to meet academic requirements and to adhere to academic norms of collegiality, integrity and respect. When inevitably disputes arise, mediation can promote the symbiotic relationship in which students’ progress depends on academics and academic throughput depends on the students.

Managing the hierarchies

Mediators in the tertiary education sector must have an appreciation for the complex relationships and hierarchies in institutions. Factors such as academic rank (from Associate Lecturer to full Professor), NRF ratings, whether or not one has a PhD, and whether one’s post is academic or not, overlay the formal management structure and manifest in an alternate pecking order with which the mediator must work. The democratisation of education also means that student leaders expect to be included in institutional governance and decision making, which challenges traditional executive structures. Power imbalances can derail established escalation and dispute resolution processes, while skilled mediation creates a favourable and safe context for understanding and collaboration.

Generally, individuals employed in academia are extremely intelligent and, because of the hierarchies, many may also be competitive. Not all those in management and supervisory roles have the training, experience and competencies to handle disputes that arise. Mediators are therefore likely to encounter imbalances in negotiation skills of the parties and may need to educate and coach the participants to achieve successful outcomes.

The common ground

It is not uncommon for people to feel intimidated by highly qualified academics. To mitigate against being overawed or manipulated, albeit unintended, mediators must be resilient and self-assured. Ultimately, no stakeholders benefit from a dysfunctional or unsustainable tertiary education sector. Nuances and interpretation will differ, but the goal of effective higher education institutions is the common ground to which mediators in the sector can revert and on which they can build.